by Adam Pisoni, Microsoft Yammer co-founder and CTO
The worst thing about employees is that they’re unpredictable. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell your workforce exactly what to do and, rest assured, they would follow instructions and execute in exactly the right way? Or better yet, they would just read your mind. I imagine half of you agree with that sentiment and the other half think I’m delusional. Regardless of whether you believe robotic employees are a good or a bad thing, this was the dominant thinking in business for over a century.
Our modern “scientific management” corporations remained competitive by optimizing for efficiency, a result accomplished through greater specialization and driven by overlaying process and rigid structure across the business. In this way, we arrived at the cornerstone of the modern company – predictability. Success was built around predictable costs, revenues, customers, and employees. Inherent in the notion of predictability is a sense of control. For corporations, it seemed that harnessing this control while setting and meeting expectations would keep them on top forever.
If you are reading this book, you likely recognize the fundamental problem with this line of reasoning… the future is actually unpredictable. Of course, it’s always been unpredictable, but now even the near-term is difficult to predict with any certainty. Put it this way, if you could confidently predict what you’ll be doing for the next 30 years, it would make sense to do it in the most efficient way possible. But if you are unsure what you’ll be doing for the next 5 or even 2 years, efficiency may be the least of your problems. What’s the point of focusing on doing one thing efficiently, if you aren’t likely to be doing it for long?
Not only is the future getting harder to predict, but the nature of work is also changing rapidly, which brings us back to those pesky, unpredictable employees whose efficiency seems to be declining as they are increasingly faced with situations they are neither trained for nor empowered to handle. The problem isn’t that they’re willfully disobeying orders, it’s that the challenges they face are evolving too fast for us to train them on exactly how to handle each new situation. In fact, these challenges are arising too quickly for the leaders in the organization to even notice them most of the time. Or worse, the explicit instructions and incentives become obsolete, or even counter-productive to success.
This problem is not going away. Technology research firm Gartner sees an acceleration in the changing nature of work, with 40% or more of enterprise work being “non-routine” by 2014, up from 25% in 2010. It’s hard to optimize for non-routine work with rigid processes and procedures. Instead it requires more empowerment, flexibility and decentralized execution throughout the workforce.
The real problem with those pesky employees turns out to be those pesky customers who seem to be increasingly dissatisfied with the products and level of service they were perfectly happy with just yesterday. These dissatisfied customers are putting additional pressure on disgruntled employees, who feel compelled to do what they know to be wrong all in the name of efficiency and predictability. While this trend may have started decades ago, many companies, and some entire industries, are now reaching a breaking point where minor tweaks and improvements will no longer cover up the deep, fundamental problems that exist in their organizations.
We are on the brink of a revolution in business – one which will rival the industrial revolution – where the very definition of what it means to be a company will change. This change will blur the lines between management, leadership, employee and customer. Gone are the days when you could tell your customers what to think about you. Thanks to social media, your brand is at the mercy of your customers who will individually and collectively decide what you stand for.
Also gone are the days when you could hope your predictable employees would yield predictable outcomes. To the contrary, you will need your employees to be creative, and thus unpredictable, in order to adapt to your customers fast enough. What’s more, employees will have to react to challenges in innovative ways without being told how to do so. The same companies that drove creativity out of their employees in the name of efficiency and predictability will come to realize creative, empowered employees are the key to surviving and leading in this new world. And it’s not just knowledge workers that hold this power. We will need everyone from executives to front-line workers to be more engaged, more creative and more motivated than ever before.
Companies will become more like partnerships where employees and customers will each choose to contribute because they believe in the mission and values of the company. Your employees and customers will need to WANT you to succeed and have the desire to take on new challenges in order to help you do so. In the hyper-connected world we live in, the very nature of what it means to be a company, a worker and even a customer is changing. We are all adapting to the constant flow of information, and in order to stay ahead of the curve, both organizations and individuals must continuously innovate in how they provide value.
This book explores such challenges and opportunities in the most instinctive, memorable and compelling manner there is – storytelling. You won’t be able to ready your organization for change alone, it’s a team effort, and such storytelling helps get everyone on the same page. Good luck. Perhaps you’ll even write the sequel?